Our Ozzie Simmons – Floyd of Rosedale story begins with another man named Ossie.
In 1932, Ossie Solem signed a three-year contract to succeed Burt Ingwersen as the thirteenth head football coach at the State University of Iowa (SUI). Solem’s assignment was not an easy one as he would be taking over a hapless Hawkeye football program that had just recently been suspended from the Big Ten conference. More importantly, the entire University was suffering from the effects of the Great Depression and the school couldn’t even afford to pay Solem his full salary when he was first hired.
After winning the opening game of the 1932 season, Iowa lost their final seven games of the year. Hopes were certainly not high going into 1933, yet on one hot summer day, a young black man from Gainesville, Texas walked unannounced into Solem’s office.
His name was Oze E. Simmons. Born on June 6, 1914, Ozzie (as he was nicknamed) loved football and was an all-state quarterback in a segregated high school football league in Fort Worth, Texas. Today, a young man like Ozzie would be highly recruited by top colleges around the nation, but in 1933, opportunities for any black man to play college football while getting a quality education was impossible in the south and extremely limited, at best, even up north.
A white Iowa graduate living in Texas saw Simmons play and suggested to him that he and his brother, Don, go to Iowa City where blacks had been warmly received in the SUI football program since 1895. Simmons had heard of the SUI football exploits of other blacks like Archie Alexander and Duke Slater, so Ozzie, his older brother, Don, and a few friends hopped a freight train to Iowa City and bravely walked right into Solem’s office during the summer of 1933 – clearly crossing the color line of that day. You see, even at Iowa, which was known by blacks as a liberal institution, it simply would not be acceptable for a black person to walk, unannounced, into a white man’s office in 1933. Here’s the story of that first encounter, as Ozzie tells it, years later…
“I arrived on campus and asked for directions. They told us where the stadium was, and so we went to the stadium and finally we found Ossie Solem’s office…so I walked in and I told him who I was. So he looked at me, like he was just stunned, for about two minutes — I guess to say, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’
As the story goes, Solem finally got over his shock, and invited the Simmons brothers to attend Iowa’s practice later that afternoon. As the team was conducting punting drills, Ozzie returned two kicks for touchdowns, so after practice, Solem smiled and told the brothers, “We’ll find you both a place to stay!”
In those days, blacks could not live on campus, so like many others (see the stories of Duke Slater and Lulu Johnson), the Simmons brothers were holed up in a small apartment just off campus. During the 1933-34 school year, Ozzie and Don spent their freshman year catching up on academics. Meanwhile, things were looking up for the Hawkeyes. Solem led the 1933 team to a 5–3 record, with quarterback Joe Laws being named the Big Ten MVP. Which now brings us to the infamous 1934 football season…
After switching from quarterback to running back, Ozzie quickly made a huge impression on not only the Iowa coaches, but opposing teams as well. In his first game at Iowa, a 34-0 win over South Dakota, Ozzie ran for a 22-yard touchdown and returned two punts – one for 61 yards, and the other for a 32-yard touchdown.
The following week, in his first Big Ten game, Ozzie rushed for 166 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown sprint, and gained 138 yards on kick returns as the Hawks handed a 20-7 defeat to Northwestern in Evanston. Ralph Cannon of the Chicago Daily News wrote…
This slithery, rubbery, oozy flyer…can make his legs talk more languages than even Red Grange’s could when he was a sophomore…Most of it seems to come naturally to Simmons, as such things must come to the genius of any line.”
After that game, Ozzie was given, what would today be called, a racially-charged nickname: The Ebony Eel, and with that publicity, Simmons began to gain national acclaim. Sadly, Iowa lost five and tied one of their six remaining games in 1934, despite the play of Simmons, who returned an interception 80 yards for a touchdown in a loss to Ohio State. Ozzie ended the year as a first-team All-Big Ten selection and a second-team All-American.
From the very start, Ozzie was a distinctive runner. According to those who watched him, he liked to grip the ball palm down, waving it hypnotically at the end of his outstretched arm like a magician’s wand. Yet as a very talented black player, Simmons’ style also made him a huge target to opposing players, which accounted for many of his injuries throughout his college career. During one long run in the 1934 Northwestern game, Ozzie was severely punched, and in another game, one newspaper account states that a player “rammed his locked hands into Simmons’ face.”
Ronald Reagan, a radio sportscaster for WHO-Radio in Des Moines during Ozzie’s time at Iowa (and later the 40th President of the United States) commented years later about the racial targeting aimed at Ozzie. In a telephone interview with WHO’s Jim Zabel, Reagan said…
Ozzie would come up to a man, and instead of a stiff-arm or sidestep or something, Ozzie – holding the football in one hand – would stick the football out…and the defensive man just instinctively would grab at the ball. Ozzie’d pull it away from him and go around him. The problems were when you played another team that did not have a black, for some reason or another, then they would pick on this one man… In the Illinois game (1935) when Ozzie was injured twice, I saw (Iowa players) Dick Crayne and Ted Osmaloski walk over to the Illinois huddle during a timeout, warning them, “Do that to (Simmons) once more, and we’re going to run you right out of the end of your stadium.”
The Hawks dominated the Illini in that 1935 game in Champaign, 19-0.
It’s late afternoon on Saturday, Oct. 27, 1934. A sportswriter from the Des Moines Register is hard at work while a cold north wind howls outside. His story is that day’s Iowa-Minnesota football game. Minnesota, bound for the school’s first ever national championship, trampled Iowa 48-12. Here’s his report…
Iowa Stadium, Iowa City, Iowa…Lashed by a human fury even greater than the roaring gale which swept the field, Iowa’s football team crumbled before the cyclonic drives of Minnesota’s power brigade. The wild attack of the rampaging Norsemen struck without warning in the opening minutes of the battle. The vicious Vikings ran amuck, leaving destruction in their wake as they plowed and pounded through the Iowa defense.
But, as history shows, winning a game wasn’t enough for the Gophers that day, and the one Iowa player who took the brunt of that Minnesota attack was Ozzie Simmons. Apparently, in his skin color, these “vicious Vikings” saw Ozzie as their own personal bulls-eye.
In the first quarter, the Minnesota players beat up Simmons after every play – hurting him so badly that before the quarter’s end he had to be taken out of the game. Again in the second quarter, Ozzie was physically abused both during play and after the whistle had blown the ball dead. On one punt return, a Minnesota player was seen deliberately driving a knee into Ozzie. His injuries were so bad (bruised ribs), he had to be rushed to the hospital during half-time.
All the while, the Big Ten officials said and did nothing to stop the abuse. Interestingly enough, just eleven years earlier (1923), Iowa State’s first black player, Jack Trice, died from injuries sustained in a game against the Gophers as well. After the game, Simmons commented that he did not think Minnesota had played dirty, but years later (1988) Ozzie told the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Jay Weiner…
I really had the feeling they were after me because I was good…Oh, I think me being black added a little oomph to it! I had made it a point to not complain about my treatment… (but now I must say) the Minnesota game was the most blatant attack. They were blatant with their piling on and kneeing me. It was obvious, but the refs didn’t call it. Some of our fans wanted to come out on the field.
Opposing players would say, “Let’s get that (n-word) over there. Come on (n-word), you’re not going to run today.” I didn’t say anything, because I learned the best way to do it, is just play your game and don’t say anything.
Simmons stayed quiet, but Hawkeye Nation was furious at the Minnesota football team. My dad, George Boller, was in the stadium that day, and he would often tell me that much of his dislike for anything Minnesota stemmed from the events of that awful day. Which now brings us to 1935…
The Hawkeyes managed to bounce back in 1935 with a respectable 4–2–2 record behind the play of captain Dick Crayne and, of course, Ozzie Simmons, who was, once again, named a first-team All-Big Ten selection.
During this season, Ozzie scored five touchdowns on runs of 50 or more yards and scored Iowa’s two touchdowns in a 12-6 upset of Colgate. Simmons’ best game was against Illinois, when he rushed for 192 yards, intercepted a pass, returned three punts for 33 yards, returned two kicks for 54 more yards and scored a touchdown in a 19-0 upset. Ozzie’s touchdown pass to fellow black Iowa star Homer Harris was Iowa’s only points in a loss to Purdue.
A scheduling glitch led the Gophers back to Iowa City once again for Homecoming in 1935. Tensions ran high. Many feared for the safety of the Minnesota players as Iowa fans looked to avenge what took place against Simmons in 1934. Gopher coach Bernie Bierman received special police protection when the team got off the train in Iowa City, and as the game drew closer, the situation deteriorated. Rumors were flying around town – and even Iowa Governor Clyde Herring hinted publicly that Hawkeye fans would storm the field if Ozzie was roughed up and game officials failed to stop it.
Hoping to avoid a violent incident, Minnesota Governor Floyd B. Olson wisely chose to distract the masses by making a public bet with Governor Herring. In a telegram, sent the morning of game day, Olson wrote…
Dear Clyde...Minnesota folks are excited over your statement about Iowa crowds lynching the Minnesota football team. I have assured them that you are a law-abiding gentlemen and are only trying to get our goat. I will bet you a Minnesota prize hog against an Iowa prize hog that Minnesota wins.
Herring quickly accepted the bet, and following Olson’s cue, the Iowa governor poked right back by replying that it would be hard to find a prize hog in Minnesota, since “they all are so scrawny.” Word of the two governors’ bet reached Iowa City just as the crowd was gathering at the stadium, and as a result, the Gophers played a much cleaner game, the crowd responded in kind, with Minnesota peacefully leaving town with a 13-6 win – on their way once more, to yet another national title.
The following week, Governor Herring made good on the wager, delivering a live pig to the Minnesota capitol building in St. Paul, taking him right inside to meet Governor Olson (see pic above). The hog was dubbed “Floyd” after the Minnesota governor, and “Rosedale,” after the name of his farm home near Ft. Dodge, Iowa. Before sending big Floyd off to an early retirement on a farm in southeast Minnesota, Olson commissioned a St. Paul sculptor to make a bronze likeness of the pig, and wallah: Floyd of Rosedale – The Trophy was born.
Floyd (the Trophy) was first awarded following the 1936 Iowa-Minnesota game, during Simmons’s last season with the Hawkeyes. Ozzie was so dismayed following this 52-0 loss to the Gophers that he nearly quit the team. His teammates convinced him to change his mind, finishing his Iowa career with more than 1,500 yards rushing, 14 touchdowns, and eight runs of at least 50 yards.
“(Ozzie) was one of the two or three greatest backs I’ve ever coached and the best halfback I’ve ever seen,” Coach Solem stated as he ended his 40+ year coaching career in 1957. Sadly, Ozzie was never given a chance to make a name for himself in pro football because the NFL banned black players at the time. Simmons did end up playing some minor league football, joined the Navy, and eventually moved to Chicago where he spent nearly four decades teaching physical education in the public schools before passing away in 2001, at age 87.
Ozzie Simmons followed in the footsteps of others who went before him, opening the door of opportunity for African American trailblazers in Iowa athletics. Click here to read more about Frank “Kinney” Holbrook (1895-1896) and Duke Slater (1918-21).
“(Ozzie) just loved small children, and he felt that he could mold them and shape their minds and be a positive role model for the children,” said Eutopia Morsell Simmons, his wife of 41 years (1960). Simmons was inducted into the Bob Douglas Black Sports Hall of Fame in New York in 1984, and according to his obituary, Ozzie was buried in a black sport coat with the words “Hall of Fame” stitched in gold on the coat, which memorialized his 1989 induction into the National Iowa Varsity Club Hall of Fame of which he was a charter member.
Here’s to Ozzie Simmons! Here’s to Floyd of Rosedale!
May we never forget the rocky road that got us all here.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.